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Techwire One-on-One: Employment, Housing CIO on Data Portal, Ongoing Work

“A CIO’s role is to ensure that the appropriate technology is being delivered to meet the needs of not just the department but the customer who’s relying on those services. I think it’s important that you’re in tune with what’s going on with the business,” says Steve Nash, chief information officer for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

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As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT and cybersecurity leaders.
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Steve Nash, chief information officer at the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
Steve Nash is chief information officer (CIO) for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), a position he has held since Dec. 2. A 24-year state employee, Nash joined the department from the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB), where he was chief enterprise architect for nearly six years. Previously, Nash was FTB’s technology operations manager for more than a year, returning to the Board after nearly five years as IT infrastructure operations manager for the California Department of Child Support Services.

Nash has a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies from California State University, Sacramento, and an associate of arts degree in business administration and management, general, from Shasta College. A longtime baseball fan, he is league president of the Amador County West Little League.

Techwire: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role; and how have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Nash: I think the CIO role in recent years has really changed. And I think what’s changed is, it’s gone from focusing mainly on technology to now really more focusing on partnering with the business and being part of the business. Now, obviously, we still have an important role leading the technology groups for our departments. But I think as a CIO in 2021, you have to understand the larger role that your department plays as a government agency. You need to have a good understanding of the business role they play. A CIO’s role is to ensure that the appropriate technology is being delivered to meet the needs of not just the department but the customer who’s relying on those services. I think it’s important that you’re in tune with what’s going on with the business. And then secondly, I think it’s really important for the CIO to be mindful of your role in securing the data that’s entrusted to you. As a department, we have public data that we’re responsible for; it’s one of our top priorities. I think, over the past 20 years, what has become the leading concern for most CIOs is focusing on data security. As CIOs, our partnerships with our counterparts, our CISOs and really the security community in general, is critical to ensure that privacy and security maintain a top priority.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing your organization’s strategic plan?

Nash: Our department obviously has one and ... it’s something we look at annually and we renew on a regular basis. So as the CIO and as a member of the executive team here at DFEH, I will be a regular part of that process in developing and updating the strategic plan. And as with any department nowadays, technology becomes such a big part of what we do, I think we’ll be absolutely looking at technology initiatives and technology response as part of our overall strategic plan. So, I will be very involved. Coming to DFEH ... we did not have a formal IT strategic plan. And in my previous role at Franchise Tax Board, as the chief enterprise architect, that’s something my shop was responsible for, so I took direct responsibility for creating and updating the IT strategic plan. Coming over to DFEH, it was something that I noticed, a gap that we needed to develop. I do plan on taking the lead on that as the CIO. I obviously don’t have a chief enterprise architect in a department this small, but I’m going to take the template of what we created at FTB and use that to create one here, and we’ll be completing that in this 2021 year.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2021? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Nash: This would have been a fantastic conversation about eight months ago. We just had probably our largest procurement ever, our largest RFP in late 2020, where we had our legislation, state Senate Bill 973 was passed, which led to us starting our paid data reporting project. ... We’ve been extremely busy since that contract was awarded back on Dec. 1. And we partnered with OnCore Consulting LLC on that project. They have been an amazing partner, and just to run a quick timeline of how that project went, we had legislation ... Sept. 30, so roughly around Oct. 1, we were able to get an RFP done and a procurement done with a vendor, awarded by Dec. 1, which has to be record time. We were able to deliver our pay data portal to California employers online by Feb. 1 ... which was just a matter of only three months to really build this system with OnCore. Just an amazing opportunity and something that we’re still ongoing, so we built the front-end portal which went live Feb. 1, and we’re currently working now with OnCore on the second half of this, which is building what we’re calling the nonfiler component, where we’re going to be doing analysis of which employers provided data and which still need to provide that data so that we can reach out to them and get them to become compliant with the legislation. And we’re working on that now with a completion plan of July or August. That has kept us extremely busy and that’s our big RFP that we did last year.

The only thing that we’ve really got going right now is we’re currently working on an RFP to bring in some personnel assistance with networking. Unfortunately, DFEH lost one of our key resources around networking, and we are noticing in the COVID-19 situation that we’re in ... recruitment has become a little bit of a challenge. We’re seeing a lot of folks, especially within state government not wanting to leave departments and move around, and a lot of good things happening where jobs are opening up and people are getting hired. So we’re struggling a little bit in filling that position, so we’re going to be doing an RFP to bring in a one-year contract for some network services to assist this department.

Techwire: How do you define “digital transformation,” and how far along is your organization in that process? How will you know when it's finished?

Nash: Obviously, the term digital transformation, I don’t want to say that it’s overused, but it’s one we hear a lot, and we’ve heard it a lot for the last few years. Me, personally, I don’t believe that digital transformation is ever something that will be finished. As a CIO in the state of California, I think it’s easy to define digital transformation as the process of using technology to improve our processes and services ... that we provide to Californians. And the easiest initiatives to point to are those where we take paper-based processes and we move them to digital platforms. At DFEH, we’ve done a great job in moving to digital platforms. We’ve had some great partnerships with Microsoft, Adobe, Zendesk and Salesforce to provide both internal and external services to our employees and to our customers. We’ve done a lot of work on that, and I think we’re very proud of the work we’ve done there. As an example, we’ve got a digital signature solution with Adobe that’s allowed us to move away from wet signatures, and we use that almost exclusively for all of our signature work, both internal and external. And then, our Salesforce platform, we’re very active on and that’s where our big external-facing systems live, where both employers and employees and individuals in California can engage with us as a department through those public systems that are running on the Salesforce platform. And we’re extremely happy with those.

I feel like DFEH has been, regardless of being a small department, I think we’ve been a leader in the adoption of cloud services. And all of those services that I mentioned, from the Adobe Sign through our Microsoft Office 365 and the Salesforce platform and even the Zendesk platform, those are all cloud-based services that we utilize for the primary work we do digitally. Going through 2020 and now into 2021 with COVID-19, all the things that we’ve been through, being a cloud-focused department with all those services running, it really allowed us to send our staff home. And people could work from home, and remotely, very well by using those services. So, for digital transformation ... I don’t think there is such a thing as a finish. I think there’s an ongoing effort, constantly looking at new technology and the needs of the individuals that we support as a state agency and continually shifting and adapting and improving our services digitally to the extent that we can to support them. But I also think it’s worth pointing out that it is 2021, we’re certainly in a digital world. DFEH is in a unique position where we are opening up in calendar year 2021, we’ll be opening up two additional, physical buildings within California. And the reason we’re doing that is geographically, we want to make sure we can support where our customers are and meet them where they are. There is still a significant portion of our community that is not as tech-savvy and really need that face-to-face. And so we want to make sure we don’t leave them behind in this digital transformation, to make sure we’re still providing those services when needed in person.

Editor’s note: One new office building will be in the East Bay area; the other will be in the Riverside area.

Techwire: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Nash: Our IT budget here at DFEH, probably in state government terms, is relatively small, at $5.2 million for IT. That’s all hardware, software and IT services for the department. ... If it’s software that’s used by our legal division, that’s budgeted to IT, so we have all IT items within that $5.2 million. And our departmental overall budget is $41.7 million. Then within the IT shop, we are certainly not a large IT team; we have 17 full-time positions in technology in the department. And that is a portion of the roughly 275 overall employees that we have at DFEH. I think it’s worth noting we have grown a bit in these last couple of years, with some new legislation coming our way that has granted us, I would say, authority to act on additional things within the state of California.

Techwire: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Nash: I would definitely say my preferred method of contact is email. I’ve got a LinkedIn page, where I do have my DFEH contact information available as well. And I have made quite a few contacts to the vendor community through LinkedIn, and lots of them have my email address, so I’ll be honest, I try my best to respond to vendor inquiries when I can. We are not a large IT team; we have a major project going on, so I probably don’t get back to as many vendors as I would like. If I did not get back to somebody, it doesn’t mean I don’t like them, it just means we’re busy and ... now’s not the best time. We’ve got a great web page at DFEH and all of our current projects and initiatives are out there and we talk about them. I think if somebody wanted to educate themselves before contacting us, that would be a great place to start to understand what is the size of our department, what are some of the things that we are working on.

Techwire: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Nash: This December will be 25 years with the state. I’ve been in technology that entire time. I’ve had, really, the unique opportunity to work on almost nothing but large IT projects throughout my state career, so, going back to January of 2000 I started work on the Child Support Automation System Project, the CSAS project at Franchise Tax Board, spent nine years on that project. And then, had a short tenure after that working for the Department of Child Support Services before returning to FTB to work on EDR and EDR II. Having worked on the CSAS project, the EDR project and EDR II, which (by) dollars and scope are three of the largest projects the state of California has ever undertaken, it’s very easy to look at those as really highlights of my career. The CSAS project was an extremely successful project that really benefited California, really focusing on the children and parents in California that needed the support of a child support program, a statewide program. Extreme pride in working on that project and then the FTB EDR project, which brought over $1 billion of new revenue for closing the tax gap as well as providing significant new digital services to ... customers in California. I was in the EDR II project right up until I joined DFEH last December.

The ... six months that I’ve been here working on this pay data reporting project, I have never seen a department and a team and vendor group come together in that kind of a time frame to develop a statement of work, put together a contract, come up with a proposed solution, build that solution, deploy it, train our customers, get communication out to the employers in California that need to use the service, and to see a huge success of tens of thousands of California employers submitting pay data through where we are today. ... In my time in DFEH, there’s no doubt that’s what I’m most proud of. I’m just here as a CIO to do what I can to help and to have great technologists and a great vendor like OnCore — we brought in some great retired annuitants like Cathy Cleek ... to help with the project, who were immensely helpful in the success of the pay data reporting project. And our business team was right there with us ... in the time frame that we had, this was by definition an agile project where we had daily scrum meetings, we had daily stand-ups, requirements meetings with the business right there as we’re developing the system. It was great to go through that process, and I think the business really appreciated the exposure to the agile methodology and seeing something delivered as quickly as we were able to deliver it.

Techwire: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Nash: So, to me, this is easy and really it all comes down to time. To be honest, I think the (California) Department of General Services and the (California) Department of Technology have made huge strides in improving the overall procurement process in California in recent years. As stewards of taxpayer dollars, it’s really critical that we have the appropriate oversight and checks and balances in place for our procurement processes. To ensure that we’re using that taxpayer money wisely and efficiently. I think it’s critical we continue to explore ways to complete procurements timely, so that individuals within California can receive the benefits of what these procurements are trying to achieve, while at the same time we have to continue to ensure the appropriate level of oversight is in place. I think this is an ever-moving target. I know DGS, CDT are constantly working to try to improve the process and make it better. I would say the PAL (Project Approval Lifecycle) process ... is a huge improvement over what we had in the ’90s and early 2000s to do procurements, where departments were largely on their own and there were a lot of opportunities for things to go sideways. So, we have good oversight in the process. But I think as departments, we need to continue to work with those agencies like CDT and DGS to allow for a little bit more agility in the delivery of those procurements and technologies. Again, it’s a difficult balance of the necessary oversight and the agility. Some of the larger projects I’ve been on from conception to contract award can be a three- or four- or even five-year process. In the modern era of technology, there’s a lot of challenges in trying to define a problem and how you want to solve it, and then five years later have a contract start and have things not have changed so much that that’s not even relevant any more. I think we have to be better at trying to speed that up.

Techwire: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Nash: This is not just to pat you on the back, but I read the publications from e.Republic every single morning. I think it’s really important, and you guys do a great job of pointing out what’s important to government in California, what those initiatives are, what options are out there, what other departments are doing. I have read articles in Techwire to find out that a department is doing an RFP or has a project that maybe I didn’t know about – and it’s like ‘Hey, I need to get in touch with them’ because we’re doing something really similar and maybe we can glean from what they’re doing or vice versa. I think e.Republic in general does a great job of sharing what’s going on in government. Outside of that ... I’m a little bit of an Apple-head. Sort of my daily routine of sites to check is there’s this site called MacRumors, which is the latest in what’s going on with Apple. It’s also a great place to keep up with industry trends. A couple of other ones — MSpoweruser is kind of the equivalent ... for Microsoft. And then some sites like TechCrunch, CNET. It’s just great to keep in touch with what’s going on in technology in general.

Techwire: What are your hobbies, and what do you enjoy reading?

Nash: Anybody that knows me at all will know that I am an absolute baseball fan. That is my No. 1, I am a huge baseball guy. I love my San Francisco Giants and have forever. But also, I’ve been coaching and umpiring youth baseball for many, many years and I’m currently the president of my local youth little league here in Amador County where I live, and I’ve been doing that for six years. I just love that I get to volunteer in youth sports with the game that I’m so passionate about and pass that on to kids. I’ve been doing that for years, and my son is actually just about to age out of Little League. But I plan to continue to be involved and be a board member and continue to umpire even though I likely won’t be coaching him anymore.

I do like to read, although I will say it probably takes a bit of a backseat this time of year, during baseball season. One of my favorite things, which is kind of the “turn away from work and other stuff and just do something different” is I read “Star Wars” novels. I’m a fan of the “Star Wars” universe and there is a huge number of novels that have been created in what they call the “expanded ‘Star Wars’ universe.” I also do enjoy reading some books on management, technology, innovation, some leadership books and different things like that. One of my recent favorites that I’d like to call out is “Creativity, Inc.,” by Ed Catmull, which is a book that really goes through the creation of Pixar and that organization, the challenges they went through and how they really relied on creativity and innovation to persist and succeed in a difficult industry. I think any leader, whether it’s in technology or not, would get benefit from reading that book. My all-time favorite author is J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m a huge fan of “The Lord of the Rings” books; that’s always been my favorite.